The Revival of Conservative Isolationism
Why Republicans will continue to pull back from the world – no matter who they nominate in 2024
America’s long-running foreign policy debate between isolationists and internationalists looks set to reemerge in full force in the decade to come. Though the divide between these two world views doesn’t necessarily fall along partisan or domestic ideological lines, it’s likely that the Republican Party will go down an increasingly isolationist path – no matter who wins the party’s presidential nomination in 2024.
Right now, it’s possible to argue that Republicans and conservatives remain deeply divided on foreign policy. Most Republicans, after all, voted for the Biden administration’s multibillion dollar military assistance packages to Ukraine, with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky making the case for aid to more skeptical and isolationist-minded Republican lawmakers like Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Mike Lee (R-UT). But it’s hard to say that the octogenarian McConnell and his more internationalist colleagues represent the wave of the party’s future when it comes to foreign policy.
That’s despite the fact that many rank-and-file Republican voters remain somewhat open to internationalism, at least within limits. Some data:
Majorities of Republicans say the United States benefits at least a fair amount from its membership in NATO, for instance, despite Donald Trump’s repeated diatribes against the alliance during his time in office and as party leader.
Most Republicans approve of the substance of the Biden administration’s policy toward Ukraine.
Still, underlying instincts toward isolationism remain strong among Republicans: nearly two-thirds say that the United States should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate more on domestic questions.
Trends within the GOP all point in the same direction: the party will head further down the isolationist road over the next several years. The party’s 2016 presidential nomination contest saw the likes of Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio plausibly claim the mantle of conservative internationalism, and Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan released an internationalist foreign policy plan in 2016 just after Donald Trump secured the GOP presidential nomination.
Fast forward to today. So far, the likely crop of 2024 candidates includes no such figures. Former President Trump made his isolationist impulses and intentions quite clear by the end of this term, while other possible contenders like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida appear bent on selling themselves as Trump minus the former president’s repugnant character. It’s still too early to tell how the party’s nomination race will shake out in 2024, but it’s clear that Trump’s shadow still hangs over the Republican Party.
That’s definitely the case in Congress, where a significant conservative isolationist caucus already exists – and looks set to expand in the wake of the 2022 midterm elections. A third of House Republicans voted against a symbolic April resolution in support of NATO, for instance while a fifth of Senate Republicans voted against military aid to Ukraine. A number of Republican candidates have resurrected long-standing isolationist themes, with Republican Ohio Senate nominee J.D. Vance attacking Democratic opponent Rep. Tim Ryan over the congressman’s support for assistance to Ukraine when local communities have allegedly been “decimated.” These isolationists also like to fulminate against China, but rarely have anything to add to the debate beyond a Trumpian elixir of ineffective tariffs and more military spending.
More to the point, however, Republican candidates clearly perceive little to no political downside to isolationism – indeed, some candidates see isolationism as a potential political winner. The political winds are blowing strongly in one direction in today’s Republican Party, and they’re not favorable to conservative internationalism.
Nor are conservative internationalists themselves in the best political shape. Beyond the absence of any real champions in today’s Republican Party, conservative internationalists have been out of power since the end of the George W. Bush administration in 2009. Many refused on principle to serve in the Trump administration, instead retreating into self-imposed political exile at think tanks and universities or noticeably distancing themselves from the political party they’d supported for most of their lives. Some will likely not be welcome in any new Republican administration, while others will have to come to terms with what the party has become in their absence and shake off the rust that comes from at least sixteen years in the political and policy wilderness.
In other words, the wider pool of conservative internationalists has dried up like the Aral Sea. These voices still exist and contribute to our national foreign policy debates in a number of constructive ways. But they no longer exert much influence over a Republican Party that’s become far more sympathetic and inclined toward isolationism than at any time since before the Second World War.
What does all of this mean?
First, it’s a guarantee of foreign policy turbulence – at best. When he assumed office in 2021, President Biden declared that America was back on the global scene after four years of an erratic Trump administration. But the Republican Party’s increasingly isolationist foreign policy attitudes make it difficult for others around the world to believe this assertion. Another Republican administration will likely throw America’s alliances and relationships with other countries into doubt, creating a perpetual sense of anxiety as to whether the United States will play a role in global politics or absent itself from the scene as it did to disastrous effect after World War I. It’s hard to see America as anything remotely resembling a reliable partner when one of its two major political parties veers into isolationism. That’s all the more dangerous in a world bound much closer together by technology, one where the United States plays a crucial role in the security of Europe and the Pacific. Without an America that accepts the duties and responsibilities that come with its power and prestige, the world will become an even more dangerous and unstable place.
Second, the politics of foreign policy will become even more polarized at home. To those of us who remember the vitriolic foreign policy debates of the 2000s and 2010s – especially those over the Iraq war and the Iran nuclear deal – it might seem hard to imagine how foreign policy debates could be any more rancorous. But with the country’s two major political parties increasingly defined by their general orientations toward internationalism and isolationism, respectively, the politics of foreign policy could descend to a level of viciousness unseen since the Vietnam War – if not the bruising debates that preceded America’s entry into World War II. (The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote that no other political question in his lifetime “so tore apart families and friendships as the great debate of 1940-1941.”1) Internationalism and isolationism could become simply another matter of partisan identity, with Democrats and Republicans sorting themselves into competing camps over time in much the same way they’ve done on other issues. As a result, it’ll become even harder to assemble the political coalitions at home necessary to conduct an effective foreign policy.
Finally, Democrats have an opportunity to position themselves as internationalists – if they want to. The Republican lurch toward isolationism gives Democrats a chance to recover from their misguided flirtation with “restraint” over the past decade and forthrightly embrace internationalism. That will likely entail a hard-fought battle against the small but vocal isolationist left and its much larger congregation of fellow travelers in Congress, academia, and think tanks. It’ll also require Democrats to overcome the pessimism and fatalism that’s too prevalent among foreign policy elites today.They’ll have to take on the vocal minority of self-proclaimed progressives who represent no more than 10 percent of the wider American public and espouse a worldview not too far from the “blame America first” sentiments found among conservative isolationists.
Democrats are divided on foreign policy themselves, and it’s far from clear that Democrats themselves want to position themselves as internationalists. There are few up-and-comers in Democratic politics willing to hoist the banner of internationalism and tilt against the isolationist left. In the end, it may be enough that President Biden has set Democrats on a largely internationalist path – and that the war in Ukraine has given many Democrats reason to believe that America can still do some good in the world.
Still, the Republican Party seems intent on barreling even further down the path toward isolationism – all at a time when the vital importance of active American involvement in the world has become exceptionally clear. Absent an even greater shock than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, it’s hard to see what would move the party from its current isolationist trajectory.
In the end, though, refusing to deal with the world doesn’t make it go away. It’s only a question of how much pain and chaos we all have to endure before this latest generation of conservative isolationists learns this hard lesson.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Life in the 20th Century, p. 241.